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The Whole 9
Creative Photography Circle
Allison was raised on the vine in Sonoma, California, and believes that life is too short to drink bad wine, count calories, or second-guess your destiny. She now lives in Los Angeles where she practices many things, the two most important being contentment and tricks for opening a wine bottle without a wine key.
There is something otherworldly about a well-scrubbed woman. Fresh out of the shower, with damp hair falling loosely on smooth, just-moisturized shoulders and cheeks rosy from hot water, she smells deliciously inhuman, like sliced Asian pear and tropical pineapple warm from the sun—depending on her shampoo, of course. When she enters a room, her perfume follows like an iridescent cape, billowing full of light and life, and her clean, unpainted face is the picture of unadulterated natural beauty. It is a simple enough thing, to be so clean, but it transforms her into something real, something sweet and pure, like honey or wildflowers or applesauce or—yes—chardonnay. Better yet, the Baileyana Cuvée du Clos Edna Valley Chardonnay 2009. Classic.
On the west side of Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain lies like a heap of cool granite boulders covered with gnarly, old oaks punctuated by tufts of hay-like grass. For the most part, the mountain wears its shade like a cloak, unobtrusively casting shadows long across rocky soil. Smooth-trunked Pacific Madrones create mazes lined by sneaky shrubs of poison oak and it is here, down a lonely, craggy hollow, that he lives.
He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. (Jack London, The Call of the Wild, Ch. 6)
His shack is just that—ill fitted planks of wood hastily thrown together—but wild mint mingles with untamed blackberry bushes on three sides of the structure and, on the fourth, he has a small stoop where he sits nightly to smoke his hand-rolled tobacco pipe, sip his dark red wine and listen to the tree frogs.
And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. (London, The Call of the Wild, Ch. 2)
The man on Sonoma Mountain is not like his fellow men. Ripe, wild black cherries and the smell of dried leaves and smoldering wood make his heart pound more than any woman’s perfume ever could. He has found companionship with the wind, society in sunset. He is the Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard 2006.
It filled him with a great unrest and strange desires. It caused him to feel a vague, sweet gladness, and he was aware of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what. (London, The Call of the Wild, Ch. 7)
He has heard The Call of the Wild, and he’s followed it.
I suggest you follow it, too. Sweet, untamed gladness awaits.
“Champagne on a Monday night, eh?” The cashier winked at me with what he thought was a knowing look.
“Well, it just appeals, and at this price, I don’t really care if I have one glass and dump the rest of the bottle. And it’s not Champagne,” I said with a return wink, “It’s cava.”
While Champagne may have been the inspiration for the Spanish sparkler, cava and Champagne really don’t have a great deal in common, and not the least of their differences is that, for cava, no special occasion is required. This holds particularly true when the cava is an $8 bottle of Non-vintage Cava Cortisano Brut, an impulse purchase during a routine pre-dinner Trader Joes run. The evening ahead of me was a big Greek salad and a backlog of work: reason enough for bubbles in my book.
Cava is made in a number of regions in Spain, though the majority comes from the Penedès, Catalonia’s most well-known wine region, not far from Barcelona. A blend of several grapes, it is made primarily with different combinations of the following native grapes, each lending its own primary characteristic: macabeo (fruit), parellada (aroma) and xarel-lo (alcohol and acidity). While the two largest sparkling wine firms in the world—Freixenet and Codorníu—are Spanish cava producers, here in the States we can’t shake our association that sparkling wine equals Champagne, and furthermore that sparkling wine equals celebration. It is my opinion that we don’t drink nearly enough of the easy, breezy, inexpensive and low-alcohol cava in this fine country.
The cava danced into my glass like it had found freedom and I couldn’t help but smile at the perceived luxury that comes with sipping sparkling wine home alone on a Monday, regardless of the price tag. The Cortisano was light straw and lemon, in appearance, nose and palate. It was simple as simple can be, crisp and clean and bright. I had two glasses. The next day, after an overnight without a proper Champagne stopper, I poured it out, and I didn’t even feel bad.
July went out in fine style this year. On the second to last day of the month, Culina at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills was selected as the site for the unveiling of a new wine at the from the Pio Cesare estate of Piedmont, one of Italy’s most traditional and respected wineries. Culina, the hotel’s latest and most celebrated update, is designed as a contemporary Italian, urban enoteca, and was an apropos location for the first domestic tasting of Pio Cesare’s new Oltre Langhe DOC 2006, the first modern blend ever to hail from this very traditional, varietal-specific winery.
The intimate press luncheon was hosted by Pio Cesear 5th-generation family winemaker Pio Boffa, and the new Oltre Langhe 2006 was one of eight wines paired with a four-course meal designed and executed by Culina Executive Chef Vic Casanova.
Culina hosts LA’s only crudo bar, and thus the meal began in modern Italian meets Beverly Hills glam with a beautiful sampler plate of ricciola (yellowtail with star anise oil and orange sea salt), gamberoni (Pacific shrimp, lemon and basil-tomato oil) and aragosta (lobster with grapefruit and chive oil and pink peppercorns), paired with the Cortese Di Gavi DOCG 2009.
The Cortese, the only traditional dry white wine of Piedmont, is a bright, clear straw colored wine, crisp and full of bold minerality and green notes: lime rind, green apple and green leaves. Grown on hillside vineyards in Gavi to enable the fruit to ripen long in dry soils, the wine has solid acidity without being searing, and with the crudo, each sip was clean and brilliant as sunshine. “It’s the kind of wine you don’t need big wine degrees to appreciate,” joked Boffa.
With a traditional caprese of heirloom tomatoes and local burrata cheese was the Piodilei DOC 2008 Chardonnay, a flaxen liquid with stone fruit and cooked apple aromas, bright tropical fruit on the palate with a smooth crème brûlée finish, which led the way into the reds.
Piedmont is a land of single-varietal wines, known for their esteemed Barbaresco and Barolo, both gigantic, burly styles of wine composed of 100% Nebbiolo and named after the villages in which they are made. While these big reds are some of the most respected wines in the world, the region is also known for the more quaffable but still highly structured Barbera, named for the grape rather than the place. Like much of the Old World, the wines here are not made to cater to market fads, but rather they adhere to time-tested methods to produce traditional wines built for optimum drinkability and aging potential.
Boffa defines tradition as not just employing traditional winemaking techniques, but maintaining the ability to produce “traditional” wines—wines with the same flavor profiles as the wines his father and grandfather and those before them were making over a century ago—in a changing world with different soil compositions, weather patterns and influences than that of his forefathers. This approach allows him to benefit from modern innovations while perpetuating the customs and winemaking wisdom of generations before him. “I don’t belong to the modernists; I don’t belong to the traditionalists. I don’t belong to anything,” said Boffa. “I believe in continuing to produce traditional wine.”
The Barbera D’Alba DOC 2007 is one such traditional wine. A “classic” Barbera that pulls fruit from a selection of family-owned vineyards throughout Alba, the wine skates around the palate with a pointed acidity rounded out with salted, stewed plums and a rich, spiced brown sugar nose. This was followed by another Barbera, the Barbera D’Alba Fides DOC 2006, a single-vineyard wine grown in the Barolo region. “Fides” means “trust” in Latin, and signifies the trust the Pio Cesare family has in the Barbera grape. The Fides is a dark cherry-red wine, with ripe black fruit and currant jumping out of the glass chased by a hint of smoke.
Alaskan white king salmon over summer vegetables and drizzled with a Barbera reduction accompanied these two wines and a third, the Oltre Langhe DOC 2006, Pio Cesare’s new baby and the first blend ever produced by the family.
“Oltre” is Italian for “in addition to,” and the Oltre Langhe DOC 2006 is the debut of this modern blend: In addition to the region’s native Nebbiolo and Barbera, this wine is produced with Cabernet and Merlot grapes grown on estate-owned vineyards. As Boffa says, “It is a Barolo with a little bit of a gentle touch.” Of the addition of the 5 percent Bordeaux varietals, “The Cabernet and Merlot add a bit of fruit and sweetness to the end.”
The wine is a deep crimson color with brick-red highlights. It is 70 percent Nebbiolo, and as expected, has a powerful structure with very firm tannins. A balanced vibrant acidity follows round, ripe fruit and soft toast on the palate to make each sip clean and extremely food-friendly. As with most Nebbiolo, the Oltre will benefit from time in the cellar; still, attendees were pleased with the Oltre even in its youth, and its first tasting outside of Italy seemed to grant it a welcome reception.
The third course brought a Niman Ranch bone-in rib-eye and the final three wines, robust and dignified Nebbiolos with teeth-scraping tannins and a long lifetime ahead of them. The Barbaresco DOCG 2005 is a bright scarlet in the glass with rose-colored rims and a dusty nose of dried violets, blackberries, barbeque smoke and an intense aroma of black licorice. A powerful yet graceful wine, the Barbaresco was perhaps my personal highlight of the tasting.
Two Barolos concluded the tasting is classic Piemonte fashion. The Barolo DOCG 2006 is a dark purple and masculine wine, initial plant-based aromas of basil and coffee beans evolving after some time in the glass into charred black fruit and charcoal. The single-vineyard Barolo Ornato DOCG 2005 was also a deep purple but clear and bright with crimson reflections. Dense cooked black fruit stewed with espresso and vanilla tobacco lead the way to fat tannins and a wine that will truly shine a good 15 years from now, a fine example of one of wine’s greatest lessons: the best things are worth waiting for.
Castello di Gabbiano Bellezza, Mercatale Val di Pesa, Tuscany, Italy 2006
Somewhere on the top of a rolling golden hillside in the Mercatale Val di Pesa district of Tuscany sits a young girl, dark cinnamon curls falling over darker cinnamon eyes, renegade red highlights glinting rebelliously off the crown of her chestnut head in the high afternoon sun. Her olive skin is a shade darker than that of her schoolmates, legs both tanned from the sun and dusty from the earth. Her deep carmine dress was made with care and of good linen, but it didn’t fit her quite right; it hung a limp and loose on her thin frame. She would grow into it in time, her mother told her, but she knew that even as she matured and grew taller and rounder, her bones would always be narrow. She would never have the structure of the classic Italian women in her village.
The year was 2006, and it was late summer in Tuscany as young Bellezza pushed up from her perch on the hill and meandered down towards the creek and past tangles of raspberry bushes, over-ripe fruit scattered on the dry soil beneath her feet, and began make her way back to her home at Castello di Gabbiano. She was happy with who she was, she mused as she cut through a vineyard, row upon row of black Sangiovese grapes brushing against her outstretched hands on either side—even if she wasn’t the traditional ideal, she knew light-bodied girls with cherry lips and cinnamon eyes still had their place at the table in Tuscany.
The late afternoon sun shone like a brilliant golden daffodil above me and, before me, its reflected image filled the cup of flaxen liquid in my hand, a second sun blessing me with its light and warmth.
The Valley of the Moon Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2008 is as clean and clear as the ocean sky, as fragrantly floral as blooming jasmine, as soft and juicy as ripe honeydew at a picnic. It is as sweet as summer stone fruit and as bright as green apples on their way into a pie. It is as simple as playing the sprinklers and as familiar as old pair of flip-flops. It is a July day in America, the Star Spangled Banner in fluid form, a palatable expression of timelessness and the perennial pleasures of summertime.
And it tastes good.
She was dark and sultry. Her uncommonly chiseled shape caught glances like a spiderweb catches flies. The solidity of her short black dress was punctuated by a silver zipper running the length of her spine, a silver zipper that served to both make the blackness blacker while also hinting at how easy, how utterly effortless it would be to make all that black disappear with one pull, like the thoughtless motion of twisting a screw cap off a bottle. This was, in fact, the thought that occupied most minds around her: what it would be like to unscrew the cap and observe her in all her full-bodied glory spilling out into a glass, the smell of rough blackberry brambles and the soft smoke of tobacco rising off of her like steam…
Whoa; let’s not get carried away. But the Rosemount Show Reserve ‘Traditional,’ McLaren Vale, Australia 2005 is an undeniably sexy bottle of wine. Its sassy diamond-shaped bottle, simple black label and undeniably simple screw-top alone are enough to make you want to get your hands on it. Once its open and you’ve tasted its dark, ripe fruit and understated, olive-like earthy funk, and quiet sophisticated oak, there’s just no turning back.
Good luck, and cheers.
Moving is not fun, no matter how you slice it. But if you’re with the right person (or people), settling into your new home can be, and with this in mind, I had big plans. My vision was of Tom and I sitting on the couch in our new apartment, wearing grubby clothes and surrounded my boxes, a lamp on the floor casting muted light as we opened one of the good bottles I’d been saving for a while and toasted this next step. Well, I think I am pretty good at giving my visions life, but this time it didn’t really work out that way. After three days of hauling boxes up staircases between alternating work schedules, our new apartment was a disaster and our old one needed cleaning. Tom moved while I worked; I moved while Tom worked. It was the Fourth of July before we could start unpacking. It was a warm afternoon. The ocean waves were crashing 100 yards away. People were partying all around us. It was Independence Day. Good wine? Yeah, right. We needed beer.
I know this is a big variation for us here at In Vitis Veritas, but there comes a time in every man’s life when he has got to veer away from the expected, the envisioned, the presumed, the habitual, and take a new path. Maybe it wasn’t the path you originally anticipated; maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe it’s a far cry from your normal routine. Let’s hope so. In fact, make it so. There is no use holding on to a vision of something that simply can’t be when you could embrace the beauty of what is. Throw your wine key to the side, leave those fancy wine glasses in the cabinet, and release your inner wild child, your cutoff jeans and classic rock, Independence Day beer-drinking fabulous self.
Pop a top and cheers.
In an old apartment which I shared with a couple of girlfriends there was a wooden plaque above the refrigerator that read something along the lines of, “A good friend knows when to listen, when to stop listening, when to talk, when to stop talking, when to pour wine, and when to stop pouring and just hand over the bottle.” Now, this struck even me as a little extreme. Hand over the bottle? Yikes. Still, it’s perfectly acceptable, perfectly human, for anyone to yield to a little comfort food now and then. If you need a little comfort wine, on the other hand—if you’ve had a hard day or a hard month and you’d like a little sip of something delicious to mellow you out—you have a drinking problem. An ice cream sundae once in a blue moon is no big deal. Putting down a few glasses of vino after dinner garners furrowed eyebrows and looks of nervous sympathy.
With this in mind, kindly be aware that I am not advocating overindulgence in any form; I am simply standing up and putting my foot down for those of us who may not have much of a sweet tooth, for those of us who get sick, not high, from abundant sugar or grease, those of us for whom wine is so much more than an alcoholic beverage, but a tangible and toothsome expression of our connection with Mother Earth, of ancient tradition and celebration, of ritual and relaxation and pure and simple pleasure.
Last Saturday night around 11 p.m., after one of the wildest work weeks in some time, I finally called it quits for the evening and sat down for a late dinner—just me, a pesto chicken sausage with sautéed peppers and onions, and my old friend, the Souverain Merlot, Alexander Valley 2007. I was tired. I was stressed. Like any good friend in a time of need, the Souverain was gentle and soft right from the get-go. She wrapped a tender arm around my shoulder as I leaned against her full-bodied presence. After a few moments, my soul warmed a bit as her dark-chocolate and cherry aura saturated my spirit. The tension eased from my neck as I took another sip. Sweet but not saccharine, she firmly told me what I needed to hear: chill out, girlfriend. And it’s OK to wine a bit after a long day.
To our right to wine,
My father Bob is perhaps Rosenblum Cellars’ most loyal customer. For years, he’s been buying and drinking and extolling the virtues of their various Zinfandels sourced from all over California, Paso Robles to Livermore to Lake County. During his last visit to San Francisco while I was still living there, we ventured over the Bay Bridge to their winery on the water in Alameda and left with three cases of wine in the trunk of his rental car. We drank it at my sister’s wedding. Since I was well below 21 years of age, he’s been educating me on how good their wines are, with one exception: “Don’t buy that Vintner’s Cuvee XXXI or whatever it is,” referring to their bottom line non-vintage California Zin, “but the rest of them are just superior!”
I am at my father’s house now, as a matter of fact, a beautiful home in the desert perched on the edge of isolation with cool tile floors and lounge chairs under an umbrella built into the shallow end of the pool. A cactus garden with tall twisting cacti from the yard of Groucho Marx curves gracefully around windblown Shoestring Acacias in the backyard. Two wine coolers are filled with the Rosenblum Annette’s Reserve Zinfandel, Redwood Valley 2006, a killer Zin that he found at a killer discount—around $12 a bottle at Vons supermarket according to Pops, which is a significant mark-down from the $35 list price. Dad is not one to spend more than $15 or so on a bottle of wine for an everyday dinner, so this sale was the deal of the century for him.
Last night, however, was a special occasion because, well, I am here. Oh, right, and it’s Father’s Day weekend. Anyway, Dad made a Costco trip for some barbeque supplies and came home with around eight bottles of wine. Most of these ranged between $7.99 and $10.99 with the exception of one, the Rosenblum Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel 2006, which he splurged on for a whooping $24.99 (a big deal for him, but a great price considering the bottle’s $35 list price). We grilled salmon for dinner and with it we drank a light California Pinot Noir, but this blog is about the Rockpile Zin, which my brother Doug opened when the fish was gone, the plates were stacked, and the men had lit cigars.
I thought I was confused. I thought maybe I was smelling the cigars, or salmon residue on my fingers holding my glass. I walked away from the smoky table, rinsed my fingers in the pool and tried again. The wine smelled like oysters. Not fishy, but definitely oceanic, like saltwater, like a sand dollar you took home from the beach, like shellfish. It was totally devoid of fruit. I sipped it. It tasted fine, as far as a wine without a nose goes, as if I was drinking it with severe nasal congestion, but at any rate the weird sea smell was not reflected in the palate. I turned to look at the table and watched as the small party all stuck their noses in their wine, too. I wasn’t the only one who smelled it!
For thirty minutes I left it alone, waiting for the weirdness to blow off. It didn’t. I know their wines, and this was not the robust, spicy, fruit-driven pleasure bomb I had been looking forward to. I reached out to my go-to resource for all things wine, my former boss and sommelier Tom Capo: is there a flaw I’m not familiar with that makes a wine smell this way? Some bacteria?
“Some whites grown in limestone soils can smell like shell. Chablis as well, since most of the subsoil in Chablis is actually millennia old ground up oyster shell fragments” read his return text message. “Never had a red where this type of aroma was the primary aromatic…I’d be pretty wary…”
And so, it remains a mystery. Although we only bought the one, I can say with confidence that it was a freaky bottle, and that this strange sensory experience almost certainly will not be echoed in other Rosenblum Rockpile Zinfandels. In fact, I urge you to try it and let me know! I am contemplating shooting the winery an email out of pure curiosity…if I receive any insight into the Mystery of the Crustaceous Zin, I will pass it along. For now, I’m going to go pop one of those Rosenblum Annette’s Reserves.
Cheers, and Happy Fathers’ Day!